Manitoulin in good position to weather potential next wave of COVID-19 illness

Dr. Mike Bedard

MANITOULIN – Manitoulin Island has largely been spared from the COVID-19 pandemic to date, but many infectious disease experts believe a ‘second wave’ of the disease is all but inevitable. Island health care providers have continued to work through the recent period of lower case activity and say Manitoulin is reasonably well positioned for the future.

June 22 was the last new reported case in the PHSD zone before a quiet month that ended with a new case on July 20. 

Numbers have since increased—fast. By the following Saturday, July 25, there were three additional cases.

On Monday, July 27, PHSD reported eight new cases and last Wednesday, July 29, PHSD reported 10 more new cases, for a total of 22 new cases within a week and a half.

“Do I think we’re ready? I think we’re pretty close. It depends how many cases hit at the same time. Even though we’ve made plans, if everyone drops their guard we will still not have the capacity to deal with a huge surge,” said Dr. Mike Bedard, physician lead at the Manitoulin Health Centre (MHC) field hospital in Little Current, which has yet to see any patient use.

“We still have to work collectively on all levels and not wait in hope that the cavalry, like a vaccine, will come save us. But on that note, regarding all of the public’s efforts of the first three months, I can say with great confidence that we’ve definitely saved lives,” he said.

Island health care providers have all been given the gift of time since the slowdown in new COVID-19 cases in the Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) catchment area, which includes the District of Manitoulin.

As the rest of Ontario joins this area in stage three reopening and as more people experience ‘pandemic fatigue’ from the many restrictions and disruptions on daily life, leading to a laxer approach to public health measures, case numbers are likely to grow.

“We could be better prepared. Not just the health sector, but individuals need to step up. I’d personally appeal for tolerance in some folks who are frustrated that the system is not what it used to be,” said Dr. Bedard. “I get it, because I’m in their boat too and I’m getting sick of it all, but we can’t start to think that just because we don’t see it, it’s not real.”

COVID-19 spreads “like sparks through a hayfield” if left uncontrolled, as seen across the United States, said Dr. Bedard.

He added that there are still ways to have fun while staying safe by thinking through one’s actions more carefully; he said he was pleased to see so many face masks in public.

Dr. Bedard also works with the Assiginack Family Health Team in Manitowaning and said the staff there have been preparing for whatever the future may bring.

“I did my first ‘deck call’ (recently), where an older patient agreed to see me in a private location outside where I could do the simple examination I needed to do, which saved me a set of PPE (personal protective equipment). It’s little, simple manoeuvres like that to think outside the box to be as ready as we possibly can,” said Dr. Bedard.

The Manitowaning clinic has been gathering an adequate supply of PPE as availability slowly increases. There are stricter access control measures in place for those visiting the office.

Anyone calling the clinic gets sent to the appropriate person; the team is offering as many services over the phone as possible.

Assiginack has also launched its own drive-through COVID-19 testing service as well as a supportive care centre with a half-dozen beds and four oxygen concentrators for people who do not require hospital-level care but cannot yet return home.

On the MHC side, the health centre’s field hospital in Little Current has reached a 48-hour standby state, meaning it can be put into action within 48 hours’ notice. The hospital is also following Ontario health directives to have between one and two beds free at each of its two sites (based on 10 percent of its total bed capacity, which is 14 in Mindemoya and 18 in Little Current).

“One thing that’s been very helpful through wave one is we’ve had a great collaboration on the Island with our health care partners; we had this already but it’s really been solidified through various meetings,” said MHC president and CEO Lynn Foster.

MHC continues to monitor regional stats and data, including the recent influx of Sudbury-based cases. 

An advantage to the second round is having evidence of the way the virus has interacted with Canadian populations already, adding to broader knowledge, compared to the first wave which saw doctors worldwide trying to find a way forward in the midst of the outbreak.

The COVID-19 assessment centres at the two sites continue to see a steady client volume. Tests are presently available to anyone who seeks them, though this may be cut back to symptomatic patients only if a surge arrives, Ms. Foster said.

“The message through our organization here is ‘yes, it’s summer, yes we can enjoy ourselves, but we cannot let down our vigilance,’” she said. “We are seeing a little more traffic of visitors on the Island, so that may bring on some added risk; however, we have to trust that everyone is taking all the necessary precautions.”

The influx of seasonal residents may also pose a risk because the health centres are oriented to serve year-round population levels. 

Ms. Foster said the loosened restrictions in stage three (such as the reopening of indoor dining and bars) may increase the rate of infection. However, this risk can be mitigated somewhat by following physical-distancing and mask-wearing guidance.

An important consideration heading into the second wave will be the impacts of the pandemic on mental health, ranging from rebellious behaviours to edginess or depression. Many people’s mental wellness deteriorated sharply amidst reduced social interactions and the stress of knowing that a deadly virus was spreading in their communities, as explored in Expositor writer Lori Thompson’s series on mental health effects during the pandemic.

Multi-generation households also pose a significant risk, especially when one member of the household comes into contact with the virus and has to self-isolate.

“What do you do in that case? We may have to start appealing to people with underused spaces like a winterized camp for possible isolation locations,” said Dr. Bedard.

He gave thanks to the many people who have worked together on the COVID-19 file, both in structured working groups and in less-formal settings. He said it is the most cohesive representation of Island health workers in his 30 years in the field here.

Certain questions and concerns remain, however, including how long PPE and testing kits will last if a second wave is longer and more intense, but Island physicians are experimenting with ways to responsibly conserve these items.

The Expositor has reached out to Island long-term care providers to learn about how they are getting prepared for a possible second wave of COVID-19. This information is contained within sidebar story on Page 24, ‘Island LTC braces for possible second wave.’